Less than First Impressions

The next night, she spent a bit more effort making herself look beautiful, since she had the time. First impressions were over with, but she still had to strive for a good reputation at Court.

She looked ravishing in a deep crimson robe, embroidered with a lighter red. She remained in a corner, her keen eyes observing all that surpassed within the room. Everything about her –her posture, her facial expression- was carefully and effectively controlled so as not to reveal any thoughts.

She was left alone for quite a while, but it could not last. The Count of Korenthius swaggered up to her with a particularly arrogant smile. When he reached her, he introduced himself, and then waited for her to respond in the customary fashion by giving her title and holding out her hand to be kissed. Instead, she looked at him in earnest and bowed to him, as any man would. She then gave him her title, offering her arm for him grasp lightly at the elbow. He was quite taken aback. Sarthus, who watched the encounter, looked amused.

She turned, believing that he was quite done with her, and walked brusquely towards the courtyard doors. I have to get outside before I burst out laughing! She thought, barely containing the tides of mirth that ebbed as she pictured his shocked face once more.

When a safe distance from the crowded gathering, she sat down on a bench and laughed until her eyes watered.

"Hard as it may be to believe, you are even more beautiful when you laugh." She jumped and looked up, straight into the calm gray eyes of Sarthus. She blinked. Why does he look so different now from yesterday? Perhaps it is just the darkness… "You are witty and fresh; characteristics I like in women. You shall be a challenge, especially since one of my rivals is the Prince."

She hissed in a sharp breath of annoyance as she stood. "Please excuse me," she said coldly, "I have an appointment to keep." He put a firm hand on her shoulder and made her face him. He looked carefully into her eyes.

"You look…so familiar. Just like….." He stopped, pulling a lock of auburn hair free from its binding and examining it. She swallowed. "Just like Nee…" he whispered, barely audible. She stiffened, ever so slightly, but he noticed. "Could it be…? Nee?"

"I told you, I am from Nuaine," she replied. It wasn't the whole truth, but it wasn't a lie. She hated lying to friends. Especially close friends like Sarthus. Nimiar could only cross her fingers and hope he did not recall her father's origins. She tensed up as silence engulfed them.

"It is you," he exclaimed, looking like a lost traveler returning home. She winced, turning her gaze down to the grass. He heaved a sigh of joy and relief. "I've been wondering and worrying about what had happened to you all this time. Oh, Gods, I'm so happy you're alright!" He hugged her tightly and she hugged him back, somewhat relieved despite, and, perhaps because of, his finding out her true identity. "Prince Azfur knows?" She nodded.

"What is it that I know?" said a bitter voice. She stepped away and saw Aza approaching.

"Speak of the devil," she remarked in a tone that was intended to annoy.

Sarthus smiled wickedly. "That green shade of your face doesn't suit you." Nimiar stifled a laugh.

When Azfur glared at her, she took his hand and squeezed it, smiling sweetly. "Sorry, we didn't mean to pick on you," she said, her voice dripping with honey, "Will you forgive us?" He was helpless; she had him wrapped around her finger and she knew it.

He squeezed her hand in return and said, "All right. Don't forget the second part of the wager, though." She had totally forgotten about the kiss she owed him. Nee pulled away, feeling warmth build up in her cheeks. Now it was her turn to glare.

"What's this?" asked Sarthus, raising an eyebrow. "A wager? What were the stakes?"

"Nothing," snapped Nee, before Azfur could reply.

Azfur smiled. "Embarrassed?" I'm gonna kill him she thought, smoothing out her face of all emotion.

"Why should I be?" As Azfur laughed, Sarthus sent her a demanding stare. She looked down, trying to find a way out of the trap Aza had set. Then a melodious voice called them. At least, called to two of them.

"Prince Azfur, Sarthus! I've been looking all over for you," said Arlieth, batting her eyes. Ugh, what a flirt. I'm going to be sick, Nee thought, edging slowly away. I might as well take advantage of this opportunity and slip away… but, of course, both men noticed.

As Sarthus grabbed her hand and pulled her back into the circle, Azfur said, "Ah, Arla, this is Countess Chenaille of Arlanthwa in Nuaine."

"Oh?" said Arlieth somewhat bitterly. "I am Arlieth of Belthansus. Pleased to make your acquaintance." Nimiar bobbed her head, thinking, she doesn't sound pleased. The four of them started a pointless conversation about the weather, gossip, and current events. Nimiar tried to escape several times, but each attempt was foiled when one of the men pulled her close him or asked her a question. Somehow, I feel used… she thought in irritation.

The large tower bells finally rang out, announcing midnight. Nimiar sighed in relief, since she now had a valid excuse to leave. "What do you think about the peasant strikes, Miss Chenaille?" asked Arlieth tartly.

Feigning a yawn, Nimiar announced, "Oh dear, I am sorry. I must go to bed now; it's late." Sarthus and Azfur looked at her skeptically, but let her go.

"Would you like an escort to your apartments?" Azfur inquired, his eyes glinting with humor.

Wonderful, to top it all off, Aza's making fun of me. "No, thank you, Your Highness," she replied curtly, "I am quite alright on my own." She turned and headed purposefully back to the main building.

A/N: Yay, another chapter out! Hum...not much to say here. Just...thank you for reading, again!

clair-a-net: Thank you soooososososo much for the review! - You'll find out later why she left the palace 5 years ago, but the reason she returned was for the bet she made with Azfur. She promised to return to the palace for a week and seriously consider staying for good if he managed to live a week (or was it two weeks? I don't remember-again, I wrote this bitages ago).